24 October 2012

Wiping bottoms the green way

One of our earliest monthly actions was to choose cloth nappies.

We also started out with cloth wipes, but soon gave these up and have had three years of disposable wipes for Eva. We continue to be big fans of the Baby Beehinds bamboo nappies we started out with, and bought another set for baby #2 (Eva's ones are still good but losing some absorbency over time, and in my opinion no longer soft enough for a brand new baby bum). I decided it was time to try again with cloth wipes.
Three years ago we used old terry towelling cloth nappies cut into squares, and kept a day's supply wet in a tub by the nappy change table. Terry towelling was not soft enough, or effective enough when faced with challenging nappies, and the tub of water bugged me. I'm a little embarrassed that it only recently occurred to me to store dry wipers and just wet them when needed.

After a conversation with Tyson's mum about potential fabric for wipes, she generously whipped us up a batch using an old flannel sheet. They are working exceedingly well. I virtually never need more than one wipe per nappy and they wash perfectly. We have also had no outbreaks of nappy rash.

Initial Time: Cutting the sheet into strips, overlocking, then cutting and overlocking as squares, took about an hour (but not of our time - thanks Grandma!)

Initial Cost: Zero - the sheet was old and spare. Old sheets can be found in op shops if you don't have any. Twenty eight wipes used about half a double bed sheet.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: The time commitment is miniscule - only the seconds it takes to wet a cloth, and adding a few small items to each wash load. However, it is important to get your wiper BEFORE lying the baby down and taking off his nappy... I can't tell you how often this simple step trips me up.

Having reusable wipes is a cost saving. At our rate of use, we have spent over $500 on wipes for Eva.

Impact: When using disposable wipes, we used about 10 per day. Over three years, that is around 11,000 wipes. 

The most immediate impact is, obviously, not putting eleven thousand wipes into landfill (they do not flush - the packaging says so, and the way they launder if accidentally sent through with the nappies confirms that they do not break down in water).

Disposable wipes are a blend of plastic and paper, a material the Huggies website calls 'Coform'. This is very slow to break down - some estimates say wipes may take 300 years to biodegrade.

While researching for this blog post I discovered that others use more like twenty wipes per day, and some over fifty (what are they doing?!). That makes 22,000 to 55,000 wipes per baby. In 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available), 297,900 babies were born in Australia. If all use twenty disposable wipes per day, that will be over six and a half billion (6,524,010,000) baby wipes into landfill by the end of 2013 for that cohort of babies alone*. Across Australia that would be about 105 tightly packed cubic metres of dirty wipes. 
However, its not just the landfill volume of disposable wipes that is detrimental. The Huggies wipes we use are made in the USA. This means the finished product has travelled at least 8647 nautical miles (for you, Hanna - 15849 km to everyone else) and probably considerably further. The individual components of the product also had to travel to reach the factory, very likely internationally, giving a considerable carbon footprint to the product.

Disposable wipes also have many additives. Listed on the Huggies box are: Water, Potassium Laureth Phosphate, Glycerin, Polysorbate 20, Tetrasodium EDTA, Methylparaben, Malic Acid, Methylisothiezolinone, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Tocopheryl Acetate.

What are all all these additives for? After entirely google-based research I offer you my best guesses:
Potassium Laureth Phosphate: could not find information to say what this does
Glycerin: lubricant and humectant (helps product retain water)
Polysorbate 20: wetting agent, surfactant, emulsifier (helps mix together normally insoluble liquids)
Tetrasodium EDTA: chelating agent (helps dissolve scale)
Methylparaben: antifungal agent
Malic Acid: tightens the pores in skin to make if feel soft and smooth
Methylisothiezolinone: biocide and preservative.
Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract: also known as aloe vera, it is used as a moisturiser and anti-irritant, although the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness suggest its prime function for Huggies is promotional
Tocopheryl Acetate: preservative, anti-oxidant, moisturiser... because it is Vitamin E to non-chemists.
In short, most of the additives seem to be about keeping baby wipes moist for as long as possible without them going feral.

Even after searching the internet I don't understand what most of the additives are, but I can tell you the majority are synthetic products that appear to be petroleum based. Even those that are naturally occurring (Malic Acid is the acid in apples; Methylparaben is found in blueberries) are not necessarily sourced naturally for commercial use. Methylparaben, for example, appears to be more commonly produced synthetically. More carbon footprint.

While of course all the ingredients have been tested for safety on baby's bottoms in the quantity they are present in nappy wipes, some are toxins in higher quantities. It is difficult to say how concerning this should be. The websites I could find that discuss toxicity all had a slightly hysterical paranoid edge to them, which makes it hard to take even their legitimate concerns seriously, if I could work out which were legitimate. Tests seem to have focussed on the safety of these chemicals at their point of use - that is, for wiping bottoms. I could not find much information about their safety as ingredients of landfill. Concerns have been raised about EDTA becoming a 'persistent organic pollutant', as it is used in so many products - in small quantities, yes, until you add them all together.

All this thinking about bottom wiping also has me asking why I am happy to use cloth wipes for my baby's bottom but not for my own. Poo is poo after all... but I balk at reusing wipes for myself. Is it the chance we might share wipes between the household? What if each family member had their own colour? Separate coloured piles beside each toilet? The main reason I won't go there is because it feels like a leap way across the eccentricity line - no longer 'pretty normal family doing a few interesting things' but into the territory of 'total weirdos who wash their toilet tissue and reuse it...'.

Toilet paper biodegrades, after all, and we use recycled paper. Its a lot of paper, though, which uses water in its production (around 31,000 L per tonne of recycled toilet paper) and has both production (~400kg per tonne) and transportation carbon footprints.

Estimates say Australians use 57 sheets of paper per person per day (20,805 per year) or 94 rolls of paper per Australian household per year. According to the ABS population clock the current populaton here is 22,792,013. Allowing for around 600,000 babies still in nappies, Australia is using about 1.3 billion sheets of loo paper every day, and around 95% of that is NOT recycled paper. On my most recent trip to the supermarket I was appalled to find that all the recycled toilet paper lines had been deleted. I spoke to a floor manager to ensure my concern at this was registered, and went to another store to stock up. I'm not prepared (yet?!) to use cloth wipes for my own toileting, but going the extra mile (well, about 500 metres) to buy and advocate for recycled toilet paper rather than settling for the non-recycled options presented is a commitment I will stick to. Even with two small children in tow who were well over shopping by then and not nearly as sweet about visiting another store as they look in this photo.

Tips from Environmental Working Group on how to navigate confusing lists of chemicals found in 'personal care products' (I love the fancy language used for the vast array of non-essential items sold as essentials in our culture)
Wipe for Wildlife campaign
Wipe It Out campaign
Info on recycling in Australia in general
20 easy ways to be a greener parent - I am proud to say we already do ALL TWENTY at our house!! It was nice to find a list like this that made me feel proud, not guilty, for a change.

* * * * *

* Not all the babies of 2010 will use their thousands of wipes. Despite one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, some babies in Australia don't see out their first three years. One of those 2010 babies was the daughter of dear friends and died at three days old. She will always be missed. I do not take for granted the incredible privilege it is that I am able to make choices about little things like baby wipes for my two healthy children.


  1. Great reference post, thank you. The content around "a leap way across the eccentricity line" made me laugh and reminded me of Theo's post from a while back... I've suggested he put reusable toilet paper on his picture.

  2. I would think that water would come wayyyyy up the line before even considering cloth which has to be washed. This hits my hygiene and environmental buttons :)

    1. I guess its a trade off between water used in production of disposable items and water used to wash and rewash cloth. The water we wash clothes with goes on our garden.

  3. Thanks for magnificent post.The information is very useful.